Living in Tokyo

Considering a move to the Japanese capital? Read our insider's guide to a world of intense seasons, J-drama romance and toilets with too many buttons

Feature by Katie Hennessy | 05 Jul 2016

Tokyo is a cruel mistress: a beautiful thing, all bright bright lights and kawaii consumable goods. Before you know it, you’ve spent your yen on all-night karaoke, and still dressed as Hello Kitty, you’re asleep on some poor salaryman’s shoulder as the subway hurtles you miles from home. You missed your stop forty minutes ago. If this is you, welcome to Tokyo. You’re doing it right.

Sensei, sensei, sensei!

You’re probably an English teacher. Or an ALT (assistant language teacher). Either way they’ll call you sensei and you might as well enjoy it because you worked damn hard to get here. You’ve got your mandatory uni degree, done a very (and I mean very) comprehensive health check, and you’ve spent time negotiating a decent salary. If you’re smart, you’ll be working a five-day week and have paid holidays outside of the legally obliged ten. Yes, just ten. Take note of the national holidays, because you would never want to pass up on the chance to make appropriate Mountain Day or Respect for the Aged Day plans.

1LDK and six tatami mats

Tokyo is expensive. Renting here, like anywhere, means handing over a deposit, which is about one month’s rent. Key money is basically just a gift to your landlord (because you guys are tight, right?) and that’s a month's rent, insurance fees are half a month and agency fees are usually 8%. Doesn’t sound like fun? Of course it is! You’re living in Tokyo. Everyone’s polite and everything runs on time, always and forever. You can go to a cafe with actual cats. Sometimes it’s owls. You can leave your laptop down while you order and it will still be there when you get back. Tokyo loves you.

But if you don’t have that kind of yen to throw down, or if that level of commitment puts the fear of God into you, then a sharehouse has you covered. What we're talking about is pretty much the same as an Airbnb situation, but you’re sharing it with a whole host of other people, and for months not days. They will still be expensive but the fee usually includes bills. For that money you’ll never eat a meal alone again, there’ll always be someone to offer you an Asahi after a long day at work, and you’ll be proficient in cheers-ing not just in Japanese (kampai!), but probably six other languages too. These guys will have your back when Japan gets tough (it will) or if you lose your key (you will).


Japan is a strange mix of high tech and tradition, and despite what you’ve seen or heard, Yoshimi has yet to battle the pink robots. Yes, the toilets have so many buttons it will take you an embarrassing 90 seconds to figure out how to flush. When eating out, food comes on demand after ordering it from your vTech-style menu screen. But don’t get too excited, there’s no Wi-Fi anywhere and 80% of business in the country is still conducted via fax machine.

Japanese toilet, with more buttons than you'd previously thought necessary Armin Kübelbeck [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a strange learning curve and it's always nice to have your own gadgets (read: smartphone) on hand to help you through emergencies. Wait, what are we saying? Smartphones are a necessity – don’t leave home without one, kids. Apps like Yomiwa will help you translate kanji when you’re at the supermarket, and it’s always useful to have an online dictionary when practising your lingo. Instagram is essential for posting pics of your lunch. It’s only polite in Japan, y’know. Hyperdia will help you out navigating the unholy maze that is the train system,  and while you’re at it, pick up a Suica card (like the Oyster) to save some yennies. Like your bank card, it will be decorated in adorable cartoon characters. Don’t say you don’t love it.

Atsui, ne?

On a near daily basis, you will be asked if your country has four seasons. 'Of course!' you say, but have you ever found yourself slipping off your train seat thanks to your own sweat? No? Then your understanding of weather extremities is rudimental. In summer the government actually reminds you to use your air conditioner for fear that you will pass out and die, and in winter, thanks to the unwillingness to catch on to the hype of insulation and central heating, you’ll find that indoors doesn’t feel a whole lot different to outdoors. But autumn and spring make it all worthwhile. If there’s anything that will keep you in Japan, it’s the chance to see another autumn in full colour – or to hanami with a beer under a freshly bloomed cherry blossom tree.

Date Night

Try it at least once! Even if you’re not looking for anything serious, it's a fun way to spend a Friday night. Don’t believe the stereotypes, Japanese people are just as diverse as any other nation and are not all are hopelessly shy. The Skinny has been chatted up on the same street in Harajuku by the same guy three times. We're attractive but not memorable, it seems. Far less creepy was falling into conversation with a soon-to-be boyfriend on a train by Fuji. You can’t write that stuff. If J-drama romance isn't your style, and disgustingly awkward dating à la teenage disco feels more comfortable, then head to a gōkon at the first invitation you get. Basically a group blind date. Need we say more?

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Shumi wa nan desu ka?

You will be asked what your hobby is. Find a hobby, if purely for answering this question. None of the following will suffice as answers but are some suggestions as to how to spend you weekend while lying about how good at tennis you are.

– Doing all night karaoke with a couple of friends, picking a theme, and not emerging from that room until the sun is up.

– Being hipster in Kichioji, sipping on expensive Swedish coffees and browsing beautifully designed cat paraphernalia.

– Going clubbing in Ageha, Tokyo’s biggest club, and loving that it’s free for ladies on Fridays.

– Staying in a love hotel, with a partner, or a friend, someone you met that night, or just by yourself.

– Choosing the theme carefully because, yes, they come with themes.

– Bopping along with Nichome’s favourite go-go dancer in Dragon Men in Tokyo’s gay district.

– Falling in and out of every nook and cranny of a bar that Golden Gai has to offer. Bonus points for befriending Yakuza members.

– Hitting a work party, or enkai, and being the last one standing.

– Never uttering a word about it come Monday morning but knowing you have earned the respect from the entire staff room.

Tokyo subway, Tim Adams [CC BY 3.0 (]

– Hitting a host(ess) bar, lamenting this terrible symptom of a sexually repressed society, but feeling ok about it because at least there’s one for guys and girls, right?

– Dressing up Lolita style before wandering Harajuku. Also realising that there’s only a few people who are actually stylish enough to get away with this and resigning yourself to being an observer instead.

– Losing yourself in the Sega Arcade, reliving your childhood all over again.

– Taking the most kawaiiiiiii!!!! photos in the purikura photobooth.

– Shopping in Shimokitazawa, wandering an abundance of over-priced vintage clothes shops justified only because hey, they are far more wearable than your Harajuku style. While you’re there, find the guy that will read Manga aloud to you for a small fee.

– Getting a boyfriend/girlfriend for Christmas because that’s how you spend the holidays here.

– Booking a table at KFC so as not to disappoint seasonal boyfriend/girlfriend on Christmas Day. Because Japan.

Keepin’ it Real

Friends at home asking about your new life will want to know where it falls on the spectrum between a Gwen Stefani video and Lost in Translation. Truth is, it will hit both extremes at some point. The Robot Restaurant, The Kawaii Monster Cafe and Takeshita Dori are where you want to go for the highs but when the culture shock is too much, give up the Scarlett Johansson pout and do something about it. Take time to ground yourself and appreciate that Tokyo is a city just like any other. Take a stroll in Shinjuku park, visit the zoo in Ueno or walk the pier in Yokohama. If you absolutely must, head for a pint in the English style bar, HUB.

Tokyo at night, Moyan Brenn [CC BY 2.0]

Kuuki Yomenai

Meaning ‘can’t read the air’, and if you can’t do it, you probably won’t settle all that well into Japan. At its loosest interpretation it’s picking up an every conceivable subtlety that may be conveyed to you at any given time. It’s basically the reason why not to ask too many questions and to resign yourself to accepting that the answer is because Japan. Eating on trains is not illegal, but Japanese grandmas will stare you down and no one has ever challenged them and lived to tell the tale. Same goes for speaking loudly. And not holding elevators open for others. Be observant and you’ll catch on easily. This society is a utopia of cleanliness and good hospitality, no exaggeration, so do your best to respect this. You’ll be crying out for it when you’ve gone.

At the same time, don’t compromise your principles: if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe at all, do it your way regardless. Just refrain from the Gaijin Smash. This is basically acting like a dickhead and then pretending that you didn’t know any better because you’re foreign. You will not make any friends this way. Instead go forth and make local friends, learn some of the lingo – ask local friends to help with the local lingo. Make it home in one piece, sporting a Hello Kitty gettup if you can. It’s Tokyo, there’s no better place.